Wisconsin: America’s Best Ride
Home to America's first rail trail, the Elroy Sparta
Cycling in Wisconsin is great. We’ve got the best network of paved, low traffic town roads in the country. We are home to some of the biggest players in the nation’s bike industry. We have the largest mountain bike race series, the biggest road race series, and a wonderful trail network. But it could be better still.
Perhaps because Wisconsin has been such a great place to ride a bicycle for so long, we have spent a bit too long resting on our laurels. Once rated the second best state in the country for cycling by the League of American Bicyclists, Wisconsin has dropped for two years in a row and now ranks fourth. While we once held a commanding lead, other states are gaining on us and even passing us because they investing in their future with innovative new bike facilities and programs. You don’t have to look past our neighboring states to see examples of new trails, Epic Mountain Bike Ride Centers and innovative bicycle facilities in urban areas have encouraged more people to ride and attracted visitors.
While it is wonderful to see other states jumping on the ride, we cannot afford to fall to far off the back. In today’s modern economy, states and municipalities need to sell their quality of life in addition to low taxes to attract and retain businesses. Similarly to attract and retain a talented workforce, employers need to sell their community in addition to offering good salaries and benefits. Trails can help, just as much as tax breaks as the new generation of highly educated workers care as much about their lifestyle as their paycheck. It is no coincidence that the best places to live, with the highest standards of living are often the best places to run a business.
Although we have slipped a bit in the national rankings, The Wisconsin Bike Fed has a simple, cost effective plan to get Wisconsin Back on top. We have run the numbers and scouted the competition, and we believe that with smart, cost conscious investment in our three-part plan, we can make Wisconsin the best state in the country to ride a bicycle, and one of the premier cycling destinations in the world.
A leader in trails since 1967 when we opened the nation’s first rail trail between Elroy and Sparta, Wisconsin has 2,028 miles of trails for people who enjoy riding away from motor vehicle traffic. While we remain a leader, our neighbors in Minnesota (2,347 miles) and Michigan (2,623 miles) have passed us not only by investing in more trails, but also in the way they promote their trails as tourism assets. More and more people are looking to include bicycling when they take vacations, and having off-street trails helps attract visitors from across the state as well as outside our borders.
The Bike Fed has a plan to not only reclaim our lead as the best state in the country for trails, but to make our trail system truly world class by connecting the existing trails into a an intra-state trail network with way-finding signs and maps. Our vision is for a system of trails that you can ride from one end of the state to the other, just as our Interstate Highway system allows people do drive longer distances. By building connections between the 2,028 miles of existing trails, Wisconsin would have the first such Intrastate Trail System in the country and perhaps the best network of touring trails in the world.
What would it take to fill in those gaps and build the best trail network in the world? Based on our boxcar estimates, we would have to build about 1,300 miles of new trail to complete the entire system. That might cost $650 million using standard unit costs to purchase right of way and to build asphalt trails. By most people’s standards, that is a lot of money, but by transportation standards, it is well within the range of our state budget if done over the next 10-15 years.
To put that number in some sort of perspective we can understand, the Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation has an annual budget of $3 billion. And while there is no doubt that $650 million is a lot of money, spread out over time that money pales in comparison to the recent spate “mega projects” like $1.2 billion to rebuild the Zoo Interchange, $1.9 billion for the North South leg of I94, $810 million for the Marquette Interchange, and $350 million just to re-deck the 2.2 mile long Hoan Bridge. In the same way we justify those huge expenses because our commerce and economic development depend on the interstate system, we can make the same argument about the $2 billion annual economic impact of bicycling in Wisconsin.
The Bike Fed is also hopeful that with advance, comprehensive planning and a little flexibility in design standards, we might be able to cut that price tag significantly, perhaps by as much as 50%.
Platinum Bicycle Friendly Cities
Madison has been one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the Country for decades. Recently Eau Claire, Fitchburg, La Crosse, Milwaukee, River Falls, and Shorewood have joined Madison and earned bicycle friendly community designations from the League of American Bicyclists as well. Madison is gold, and working through the recommendations in it’s plan to earn a platinum rating. La Crosse is silver and the others are Bronze, but there is no reason they cannot all become Platinum in the next ten years. The Bike Fed vision for Wisconsin is that by 2020, all our major urban centers will be Platinum rated Bicycle Friendly Communities.
Platinum rated Portland, Oregon is often held up as the best big city for bicycling in the United States. If you added up all the money Portland has spent on bicycle projects since the 80s when they began their push to become more bicycle friendly, it comes to about $60 million. For the cost of constructing one mile of urban freeway, Portland has positioned itself as the best large city for bicycling in the country. There are not too many things a big city can do to be the best in the nation at that price.
Because urban bicycling is a cheap date, and bicycle projects have such a huge return for a relatively small investment, many other cities are scrambling to be “the best bicycling city” in the country. Major cities across the country are fast at work building innovative new protected bike lanes on major streets, adding bicycle boulevards to their local street network and implementing bike sharing programs. They are doing all this to improve the quality of life for their residents, but also to attract and retain businesses and a young, talented and highly educated work force. Cities that are great for bicycling, also tend to attract more businesses, retain highly educated workers and have a higher median income. In the competition to attract and retain businesses, Wisconsin must compete against other states in which their cities are fighting to be the best.
One famous friendly intercity rivalry is between Portland and Minneapolis. When talking about the best cities for bicycling, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak is fond of saying “Portland is just a street in Minneapolis.” Chicago Mayors Daley and Emmanuel have plans to fast track Chicago’s rise to become the best big city for bicycling. Chicago is getting serious competition from Mayor Bloomberg who has virtually transformed the streets of NYC with some of the best and most innovative bicycle facilities in the world. Mayor Greg Ballard often speaks about the importance of Indianapolis as a bicycle-friendly city in attracting employers and employees to Indianapolis. Charlotte, Louisville, Austin, San Diego, Boulder, and the list goes on; all are betting that bicycling is one of the key ingredients in the recipe for urban success.
The Bike Fed envisions that within the next 10 years or less, all the major cities in Wisconsin could be Platinum rated bicycle friendly communities. In a city like Milwaukee, which already boasts nearly 100 miles of bike lanes, a raised bike lane and quite a few trails, what would it cost to go from Bronze to platinum in the next five years? The Bike Fed estimates an annual investment of $4 million would be enough to upgrade to a network of protected bike lanes on major streets, build a bicycle boulevard network on their local streets, add neighborhood connections to their trails and run a bike sharing program for five years and put Milwaukee in the same class as Portland, the best big city for bicycling in the country. With the head start that gold-rated Madison has, it would only cost $7.5 million to get to platinum. Smaller cities like silver-rated La Crosse would have similarly reduced costs to become some of the best cities for bicycling in the US. What would be the return on this investment?
Even conservative estimates show that investments in bicycling and walking return up to $11.80 for every $1 invested. That’s a return on investment of 10.8x. European estimates that include adjustments for reductions in greenhouse gasses show an even higher rate of return.http://www.peoplepoweredmovement.org/site/index.php/site/memberservices/2012_benchmarking_report/
Meanwhile, according to a 2006 study funded by the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) to look at the return on investment in the Interstate Highway System since on it’s 50th birthday showed rate of return on highway capital has declined from a high of 3.5x (up to the 80s) down to 1.1x over the life of the Interstate Highway System today. http://www.interstate50th.org/docs/techmemo2.pdf
I’m no Warren Buffett (though I do own a little BRK-B), but I’ll take an ROI of 10.8x over 1.1x for my dollar. Investing in bicycle friendly communities just makes economic sense.
Epic Mountain Biking
From the first trails built in the Chequameqon Forest to the singletrack in the Southern Kettle Moraine, mountain bikers have had places to ride in Wisconsin since almost as long as there have been mountain bikes. While we are blessed with some nice single track, our neighboring states have upped the MTB anti with International Mountain Bicycling Association Epic rated Mountain Bike Ride Centers in Copper Harbor, Michigan and Cuyuna, Minnesota. Duluth is also already moving dirt and has all the funding in place to build a huge ride center. These new, professionally designed and built ride centers offer incredible experiences for all levels of riders and have garnered national attention that is attracting visitors from across the country.
While Wisconsin may have lost the hole shot in the race to build IMBA Epic rated Mountain Bike Ride Centers, we are not out of the race. The first of these professionally designed and built mountain bike ride centers is already funded and on the drawing board in Franklin near the Milwaukee County Alpha mountain bike trails at what is now the Crystal Ridge Ski Hill. Baseball enthusiast Michael Zimmerman and his firm Zimmerman Ventures LLC recently signed a lease with Milwaukee County to build a baseball complex on the ski hill grounds. Renamed The Rock Sports Complex, the decision to create a mountain bike park at The Rock grew out of plans for winter recreation on the ski hill. Arena Snow Parks, the company Zimmerman Ventures hired to design an improved ski hill, recommended a mountain bike park to maximize income when the baseball diamonds would be covered with snow. Those recommendations amplified the support for a mtb ride center from the Metro Mountain Bikers (local mountain bike advocates ) and Bike Fed board member Chris Kegel, who met with Zimmerman to encourage an MTB ride center at the sports complex.
It is great that as soon as Spring, 2013, the Milwaukee area will have world class mountain biking, but the Bike Fed has a vision for many more of these centers around the state. With a little planning, a little funding and some local support, we see Wisconsin becoming one of the premier mountain bike destinations in the country. Yep, even without the Rockies, we think that little old Wisconsin can see a huge influx of visitors coming here from across the country, if not around the world, to ride our modern flow-based mountain bike ride centers.
Share our Vision
The Bike Fed’s Vision is for Wisconsin to be the best state for bicycling PERIOD
I know, making a big statement like that goes against our humble Wisconsin nature, but we cannot afford to sit with our hands in our pockets while our neighboring states reach for the golden (platinum) ring. Being the best is something we can take to the bank.
When we asked ourselves what it would take to be the best we came up with three main things:
- Our state trail system second to none.
- All our major urban centers, from Ashland to Kenosha are Platinum rated bicycle friendly communities.
- Our state is dotted with epic opportunities to ride mountain bikes.
In the articles that follow, we try to paint a clearer picture of what each of these elements in our vision looks like and what it will take to make that vision a reality. We hope that as you read on, you can feel the excitement we have for the future of bicycling in Wisconsin and jump on the ride with us.